An Insider’s Guide to the New, “Healthy” Fast Food

by Charles Platkin, PhD

McDonald’s was one of the first on the scene with their new salad offerings. The problem is, their salads can be misleading, especially when dressing is taken into account. The ranch dressing alone (290 calories, 30g fat, 4g carbs, 0g fiber) has more calories and three times the fat of a single hamburger (280 calories, 10g fat, 36g carbs, 2g fiber).

By itself, the Caesar Salad seems harmless (90 calories, 4g fat, 7g carbs, 3g fiber), even with grilled chicken (210 calories, 7g fat, 11g carbs, 3g fiber), but the Caesar dressing adds 190 calories, 18g fat, 4g carbs, and 0g fiber. Opt for the Low-Fat Balsamic Vinaigrette (only 40 calories, 3g fat, 4g carbs, 0g fiber). And skip the croutons to save another 50 calories, 1.5g fat, and 8g carbs.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that all salads with chicken are low fat. The worst salad option is the Crispy Chicken California Cobb Salad (380 calories, 23g fat, 20g carbs, 3g fiber without dressing). Add ranch dressing, and you’re at 670 calories and 53g fat — more than a quarter-pounder with cheese (540 calories, 29g fat, 39g carbs, 3g fiber). Following close behind is the Crispy Chicken Bacon Ranch Salad (without dressing: 370 calories, 21g fat, 20g carbs, 3g fiber).

Overall, salads can be a healthy option, but you have to know how to order. No matter which salad you choose, opt for a low-fat dressing and skip the croutons. Also, request that the chicken on your salad be grilled, not fried.

In terms of sandwiches, you may be surprised to find that the Chicken McGrill (410 calories, 17g fat, 39g carbs, 3g fiber) has more calories and fat grams than a cheeseburger (330 calories, 14g fat, 36g carbs, 2g fiber)! If you skip the mayo, you’ll save yourself 104 calories and 11g fat. An easy way to save about 20 calories (yes, every calorie counts!) is to ask for a regular bun instead of the sesame bun.

The McGrill is still a more nutritious option than the deep-fried Hot ‘n Spicy McChicken (450 calories, 26g fat, 40g carbs, 1g fiber). The chicken patty alone has 194 calories, 13g fat, 10g carbs, and 0g fiber! Even the regular McChicken is not a bargain (430 calories, 23g fat, 41g carbs, 3g fiber).

Pizza Hut
Pizza Hut has introduced their version of a healthy pizza: “Fit ‘N Delicious”. In general, the “Fit ‘N Delicious” pizzas are your best bet since they all contain 170 calories or less and no more than 4.5g fat per slice.

If you don’t like pizza, you’re out of luck because Pizza Hut doesn’t offer other nutritious options. Their pasta dishes on average contain about 700 calories, 27g fat, and 90g carbs (fiber ranges from 1-12g). Some have over 1000 calories, like the seemingly healthy Pasta Bakes Primavera with Chicken (1050 calories, 50g fat, 97g carbs, 6g fiber).

The good news is Wendy’s allows you to mix and match and offers a variety of fat-free and reduced-fat dressings. For example, the standard Mandarin Chicken Salad with Oriental Sesame dressing contains 630 calories, 35g fat, 50g carbs, and 5g fiber, more than a classic hamburger (410 calories, 19g fat, 37g carbs, 2g fiber). But if you cut out the almonds from the salad (you can still keep the crispy rice noodles), and switch to fat-free French dressing (a whole packet!), the salad goes down to 330 calories, 5g fat, 46g carbs, and 3g fiber.

The Taco Supreme Salad with everything has 670 calories, 32g fat, 64g carbs, and 10g fiber; remove just the taco chips to bring it down to 450 calories, 21g fat, 37g carbs, and 8g fiber. If you also remove the sour cream, it’s down to 390 calories, 16g fat, 35g carbs, and 8g fiber. Even without the chips and sour cream, this salad remains filling due to the chili.

The most surprising salad was the “Spring Mix Salad” which sounds very healthy, but again, with everything (including the recommended House Vinaigrette Dressing), it contains 500 calories, 42g fat, 25g carbs, and 7g fiber. The burger is still better! Switching to Fat-Free Ranch (the entire packet) lowers it to 390 calories, 24g fat, 36g carbs, and 7g fiber, and by removing the nuts, the salad is left with just 260 calories, 11g fat, 31g carbs, and 5g fiber. In short, at Wendy’s, opt for fat-free or reduced-fat dressing, and limit the high calorie extras like nuts, croutons, chips, sour cream, etc.

Wendy’s offers other choices too, such as the Grilled Chicken Sandwich (300 calories, 6g fat, 36g carbs, 2g fiber). And Wendy’s large chili has 300 calories, 7g fat, 31g carbs, and 7g fiber, yet is still hearty and filling.

Burger King
Burger King introduced their version of healthy fare recently with rave reviews: the Santa Fe Fire-Grilled Chicken Baguette with 350 calories, 5g fat, 47g carbs, and 4g fiber. The Savory Mustard Chicken Baguette also has 350 calories, 5g fat, 47g carbs, and 3g fiber. Although a regular hamburger (310 calories, 14g fat, 31g carbs, 2g fiber) is higher in fat, it’s lower in overall calories. Burger King offers a veggie burger too, which has 340 calories, 10g fat, 47g carbs, and 4g fiber with reduced-fat mayo; hold the mayo, and it slims down to 300 calories, 7g fat, 46g carbs, and 4g fiber.

Burger King only offers one main course salad, their Chicken Caesar salad (450 calories, 23g fat, 22g carbs, and 4g fiber with dressing and croutons). You can save 90 calories, 3g fat, and 14g carbs if you skip the croutons. The dressing has 140 calories, 13g fat, 4g carbs, and 0g fiber, so get it on the side and sprinkle it on with a fork.

Burger King doesn’t really promote their chili, which is actually a healthy choice (190 calories, 8g fat, 17g carbs, and 5g fiber). Burger King’s Chicken Whopper is flame-broiled, and if you have it without a bun and no mayo — simply plain — it has only 160 calories, 3.5g fat, 3g carbs, and 1g fiber. Looks like it’s BK’s biggest bargain.

Subway pioneered the healthy fast food trend, offering nutritious options like their “7 under 6″ sandwiches (all of which have fewer than 6 grams of fat). The Deli-Style Roll is the lowest calorie bread option, but both the Roasted Garlic and Honey Oat rolls have the most fiber — 4 grams in the 6″ size. Make sure you’re sticking to just the 6” size though — doubling the size also doubles the calories and fat grams. Skip the extra cheese and mayo, and flavor your sandwich with extra veggies, pickles, vinegar, or mustard.

Despite their reputation, not everything at Subway is low in calories and fat, so be wary. The 6″ Meatball Sub has 540 calories, 26g fat, 53g carbs, and 5g fiber, and the 6″ Tuna Sandwich (which sounds like it should be healthy, especially coming from Subway) contains 450 calories, 22g fat, 46g carbs, and 4g fiber.

Taco Bell
Taco Bell just launched a new campaign where you can substitute their Fiesta Salsa for any sauce or cheese. All you need to do is order your item “Fresco-Style.” The calorie and fat savings vary depending on the menu item and how much sauce or cheese it originally contained. For example, the Chicken Soft Taco goes down from 190 calories to 170 and from 6g fat to 4g, while the Grilled Steak Taco decreases from 280 calories to 170 and from 17g fat to 5g.

In general, your best bet is a taco (skip the Double Decker ones) or gordita, instead of a chalupa or burrito. Have chicken or beans as the filling, not beef. If you want a specialty item, make it a Tostada or a MexiMelt.

The worst of the bunch — the taco salad with salsa — contains 790 calories, 42g fat, 73g carbs, and 13g fiber. That includes the shell, so at the very least, leave out the shell to cut the calories and fat almost in half (420 calories, 21g fat, 33g carbs, 11g fiber).

Kentucky Fried Chicken
Don’t be fooled by their new ads pushing fried chicken as a “health food” — wait until next year when they launch their new low-cal menu.

Bottom Line
Just because something is grilled or has lettuce doesn’t automatically make it lower in calories and fat — which is what counts when you’re trying to lose weight. Ask for dressing on the side; skip the high calorie salad fillers; and use ketchup or mustard instead of mayo.

Also, find out if the nutrition information is available — sometimes the option that seems less healthy is actually a better choice. Above all, your meal needs to be satisfying. Those 30 calories saved on “healthier” pizza will be lost if you give in to the midnight munchies.

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